Masala Chili is the best kind of fusion food, paying homage to the original but clearly introducing exciting new flavors, making it great gateway food to Indian cuisine and also just good eats! I have used an affiliate link to Amazon, but the rest of the links are uncompensated, companies that I love.
I was of two minds whether to share this dish. Which requires some catch up story to explain. It started with my sister at a Charles Wesley Godwin backyard concert, which is quite melodramatic sounding but actually the truth. I expressed my jealousy that she had local friends (this was a month or so ago when weather was warmer and Covid was not quite raging so badly) with similar taste in music, so shelling out the $1,000+ performance fee was more feasible (please understand I am not criticizing the artists–I have been buying tee shirts left and right and donating money too because as you guys know I love the live music industry and people it is hurting right now). She said something that stuck with me: “What else am I gonna spend the money on right now?”
That got me to thinking. We have been very lucky because John’s job is perfect for work from home and has been unaffected by the pandemic. So without vacations and meals out, we have some money to spare. When else would I have a chunk of change to massively update my photography equipment? I went from the cropped frame Rebel line to a full frame Canon Mark 5D IV, thus also necessitating new lenses. If you are wondering why or what the frame is, I will refer you to the Food Photography Blog, for her awesome explanation because I will never explain it right. Just understand that it is a pretty big upgrade and change and is thus coming with a learning curve.
Which leads me to these pictures. You would think nicer equipment would mean nicer pictures, and in the long run it will, but in the short run it also means your camera can do more so you are trying things you have never tried before. First, focusing is completely different and I am definitely experiencing adjustment there. And additionally, as regards these pictures, they were taken in very low light, where I would never before have attempted the picture. I am okay with how they turned out but not thrilled. I am pretty sure I need to use my remote shutter button–I think I ever so slightly jostled the camera when pressing the shutter button (yes I did use a tripod).
But in the meantime the chili was gone and it has been a while since I was super excited to share a recipe right after making it, so I thought back to what is most important to me on this blog. It has always been writing and recipes. The photography is something I have been forced to learn–and I have gotten seriously into it, but I decided not to let my learning curve prevent me from sharing this delicious Masala Chili.
I came across the beginning of this dish in Beekman 1802: A Seat at the Table: Recipes to Nourish Your Family, Friends, and Community, a cookbook find from Halfprice Books that I picked up a couple weeks ago–during my only trip to the store of 2020. Gulp. Anyway the minute I saw their Beef Masala Chili I knew I wanted to make it, but I was a little bummed that to me the dish looked like a thinner kheema, still delicious but packing very little chile powder punch. I did not want my Masala Chili to taste like I was eating kheema without rice, I wanted it to taste like I was eating an Indian twist on a traditional Midwestern Chili. I did stick with their spice combination, except for adding a lot more chile powder, mainly because I like to force myself out of the ruts I get stuck in, delicious though they may be. Like any family that makes their own masalas I have my favorite combinations, but it is good to be forced to try new ones too.
The spices called for definitely had hints of licorice from star anise and fennel seeds, so I decided this would be a good time to try Burlap and Barrel’s heartbreaking Floyd Cardoz Garam Masala. Wondering how a spice blend can be heartbreaking? Mr. Cardoz, one of my favorite cookbook authors, was one of the first victims of Covid-19 and never saw this fantastic blend released. Definitely different from my garam masala, but checking all of my boxes (uses warm, sweet spices and no cumin and coriander filler), this blend complemented the chili perfectly. I thought it was also a fair tribute to Mr. Cardoz, because his spice rub recipes for roast meats are both delicious and gave me permission to play with Indian flavors outside of traditional Indian dishes (that is not always easy for those of us not from the culture whose cuisine we want to play with). I never met Mr. Cardoz, but I think of him every Christmas when I rub something inspired by him all over my beef tenderloin and serve a meal that hits Western holiday traditions with a lot more exciting flavors than the ones I grew up with. I have not yet tried the other two spice blends in the Burlap and Barrel Floyd Cardoz collection, but the Garam Masala gets a big thumbs up from me, enough to make me think maybe I should play with my own recipe.
I have really upped my online spice game in the last few months, so I will link you to some of the exact spices I used, but please don’t let not having the exact spice stop you from making this dish. Having said that, also please consider some of the online spice purveyors, especially the fair trade ones. By eliminating the middle men, the prices are actually quite reasonable if you use the spice in question regularly. Another easy sub to consider is one of the plant based ground meat substitutes. I made this dish in two pots, a smaller one for Sammy, who is still maintaining a vegetarian diet, and a larger one for the rest of us using a combination of ground beef and ground bison.
Adapted from Brent Ridge, Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Rose Marie Trapani from A Seat at the Table. Be sure to read the notes before starting.
- 2-4 T ghee (use less for fattier meat and more for bison or plant-based "meat")
- 1 Ceylon cinnamon stick (I used Burlap and Barrel's Cinnamon Verum but they are out of the sticks now)
- 1 whole star anise
- 1/4 t whole black Aranya peppercorns (other black peppercorns can sub)
- 1 t lightly crushed coriander seeds (I used Burlap and Barrel's and again they are out now)
- 1/2 t fennel seeds
- 1/4 t cumin seeds (I am using up my previously purchased cumin seeds but I highly recommend Burlap and Barrel's)
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4-6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 T minced fresh ginger
- 1 sweet bell pepper, diced
- 1/2 t Pragati turmeric
- 1 T double strength (or use twice as much) tomato paste
- 1 t ground Anaheim chile powder*
- 2 t Deggi Mirch chile powder*
- 1 t Guntur Sannam Chile Powder*
- 1 lb ground red meat or plant based ground meat substitute
- 1 t (heaping, split) Garam Masala
- 2 cups water
- 1 can (15 oz) chopped tomatoes
- 1/2 t amchur powder**
- 1/2 t black lime powder**
- 1-2 t cider vinegar (start with 1 and taste for more at end)
- 3 small-medium potatoes, I prefer a thin-skinned variety unpeeled, diced
- 1 T jaggery or dark brown sugar
- 1.5 t natural cocoa powder
- 3/4 cup frozen peas
- crumbled queso fresco***
- full fat Greek yogurt
- chopped cilantro
Heat a medium-large, heavy bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the ghee, cinnamon stick and star anise. Watch carefully--in my larger pot it took a few minutes but in the smaller pot (remember I was making one vegetarian and one not) it happened fast and I had to throw out burned star anise and start over. Add the black peppercorns.
When the spices begin to get fragrant add the fennel seeds, crushed coriander seeds and cumin seeds. Stir the spices as needed and turn the heat down if they are not browning evenly. You want them a little darkened and wonderfully fragrant.
Add the onion with a pinch of salt and turn the heat up a little, to medium high. Keep water by the cooktop so that if anything starts to scorch or stick you can add a tablespoon or so of water. Cook, stirring as needed, for 10 minutes, until caramelizing.
Add the garlic, ginger and bell pepper with a pinch of salt. Keep stirring as needed. After 2 minutes, add the tomato paste. Cook another 2 minutes.
Add the turmeric and chile powders. Stir into the onions so everything is evenly coated.
Add the ground meat (or vegetarian sub) with a hefty pinch of salt and half of the garam masala. Stir to break up the chunks of meat and brown evenly.
When the meat is evenly browned, add the tomatoes and 2 cups of water. Add another pinch of salt with the potatoes. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to maintain a brisk simmer for 10 minutes.
Add the jaggery (or brown sugar), cocoa powder, amchur powder, black lime powder and cider vinegar and simmer for another 20 minutes.
Check to see if the potatoes are fork tender--this will depend on variety of potato and size of chunk. When they are tender, turn up the heat and stir in the peas. Return to a simmer.
When the chili is hot throughout (after adding frozen peas), add the remaining half teaspoon of garam masala. Taste for more salt or cider vinegar. Remember that you will be adding yogurt and queso fresco which will calm the heat and balance any tannic notes from the chile pepper.
Serve garnished with chopped cilantro, yogurt and queso fresco.
*I chose this combination of chile powders based on flavor and heat. If you do not have these exact chile powders, choose bright ones, like cayenne. Before discovering these spices online or in Indian groceries I would often use some paprika also, as we would not be able to eat a meal with 4 teaspoons of cayenne pepper!
**If you do not have amchur or black lime powder, you can use all amchur, all black lime powder, or lime juice to taste at the end. The lime juice will be brighter, not as earthy, but it will work fine. Keep in mind you may need to re-add to any leftovers as the punch of citrus juice tends to fade.
***I knew queso fresco would work in this because it is mild, kind of like paneer. Normally I would suggest feta as a sub, but if you use feta you might want to use less salt--and report back how it was!